Lawyer Describes The Emotional Toll Of Calculating Victims' Compensation
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
In the months after September 11, the human toll of the terrorist attacks began to be fully realized. Congress created the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund to compensate surviving victims and families still reeling from loss, while convincing them to forego lawsuits. And it fell to attorney Kenneth Feinberg to figure out the monetary value of victims - from busboys at the Windows on the World restaurant to Wall Street traders. Since then, Feinberg has gone on to run compensation funds for other national tragedies, most recently the Orlando nightclub shooting. We invited him to our studios to talk about the lessons he learned as special master of the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund. Kenneth Feinberg, good to have you here.
KENNETH FEINBERG: Thank you.
SUAREZ: At the very beginning when you agreed to take the job, did you understand the full ethical, legal, emotional, moral scope of what you had agreed to do?
FEINBERG: No. It was a tsunami. I never had any appreciation of what it would be like and what I would go through in compensating about 5,300 victims and their families. Explaining the numbers was relatively a straightforward task. Empathizing with people, trying to understand what it was like if you were in their shoes - that was debilitating and that took an emotional toll on me, on my staff and on everybody associated with the program.
SUAREZ: Could you have hidden behind the office of the special master, made your calculations, offered your packages without that high-touch approach that you decided to take? Some of those contacts with grieving family members must have been grueling.
FEINBERG: It was grueling, but you can't hide. If you hide, you're defeating the congressional purpose of encouraging people to join voluntarily into this fund. And the only way you do that is by walking into the lion's den, meeting the families, telling them what you can do and can't do under the law, brace yourself for what you're going to hear. But we got through it. As you know, Ray, 97 percent of all the eligible families who lost a loved one - they came into the fund voluntarily. We distributed over $7 billion - all taxpayer money. But it was a grueling 33 months, I must say.
SUAREZ: You've done it now with other diverse losses of life from fatal flaws in General Motors' automobile ignitions to a lone shooter at Virginia Tech to bombings near the finish line of the Boston marathon. Did the experience after the 9/11 attacks teach us some things that we had to learn how to do?
FEINBERG: The substance of the 9/11 Fund is a precedent for nothing. You'll never see another 9/11 Fund. I didn't see public money being spent on victims after Katrina or Oklahoma City or the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. In these other programs, what's unique is you find a way to allocate limited funds and get them into the hands of victims on the relatives designed to give them some degree of financial stability.
SUAREZ: You touched on this briefly before, but I want to return to it. How has the experience changed you?
FEINBERG: You become very, very fatalistic. Young people come to me all the time with their resumes saying this is what they're going to do two years from now, four years from now, six years from now. I tell them don't plan so far ahead. Life has a way of changing the best laid plans. You may think you know what you're going to be doing a year from now or two years from now. I don't think I plan more than two or three weeks ahead because everybody gets curveballs one day or another.
SUAREZ: Kenneth Feinberg administered the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund as special master. He joined me in Washington. Good to talk to you.
FEINBERG: Thank you, Ray. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.